Tractor Training with Atlantic Towing, Ltd.
by Captain Gregory Brooks, Towing Solutions and Chris Hall, Atlantic Towing Ltd.

Atlantic Towing Ltd (ATL), of Saint John, NB has recently taken delivery of three new 5100 BHP Z Drive “reverse tractors” for harbor operations in new and existing markets. With these deliveries being more advanced than their existing fleets of Z Drives, ATL knew that they would need, at the very least, to develop a new training program to match the expanded capabilities of the new tugs. Although well established, ATL also knew that in order to maintain their growth they needed to raise the bar on their skills and competencies as part of their continuous improvement initiatives.


The boats they had been building since 1995 as their standard all purpose harbor and coastal tug was a version of the Robert Allan Ramparts® design.  These “reverse tractors”[1] or ASDs are 30.8m (101 ft.) long with a beam of 11.14m (36.5 ft.) and they draw 3.7m (12.1 ft.) of water.  The earlier hulls were powered by 4,000 Hp, while the more recent deliveries have been delivered with 5,000 Hp.  It should be noted that the higher horsepower boats were also equipped with a large escort skeg to improve the boat’s performance in the indirect and powered indirect modes.  [Note: For additional details, see also “American Tugboat Review 2005”, an Annual Special Issue of Professional Mariner”.]

Interestingly, this skeg initially created a lot of skepticism from the pilot community, as it was thought that this would negatively affect the boat’s ability to walk sideways with a ship while maintaining a 90º angle when in the docking or “push / pull” mode.  While the skeg does slow the boat’s “waking” ability, the tug operator can minimize this limitation by folding the tug’s stern up into the direction that the vessel is moving when the pilot gives the order for the boat to “stop and hold” (position).  In this way, the tug can back alongside the ship, not quite head and tails, so that he can maintain a slight strain on the towline.  When the pilot wants the boat to work again, the tug operator can then easily (and quickly) let the boat fall back into the 90º position.

The company was seeing growth and expanding into new markets (the Port of Halifax for one). With more sophisticated tonnage in the fleet, ATL wanted to ensure it was also improving value to its customers. Therefore, ATL undertook an internal review that determined it was essential to have a robust training and development scheme in place. To maintain its position as one of the leading tug service providers and improve to that of the premier towing company on the East Coast of North America, it was decided to implement a program to take the company in that direction.

One of their first steps in this process was to employ Captain Greg Brooks of Towing Solutions, Spring Hill, FL to conduct advance tractor training for their crews in order to ensure they were aware of and capable of performing all of the tractor maneuvers that a pilot might ask of them in the three major ports that they serviced.  As part of planning the first training session, ATL extended an invitation to the pilots serving these ports.

The training was scheduled to be conducted in two phases.  The first day and a half was scheduled as classroom work to ensure the crews clearly understood the maneuvers to be conducted and why a pilot might use the tractor this way.  After the classroom sessions were completed, the training now began in earnest aboard the tractors as the instructor demonstrated the maneuvers to be practiced, and watched over his students as they worked to learn the various maneuvers.  This onboard training was conducted around the boat’s normal work schedule so that no revenue was lost during these training sessions.

Classroom Training

The first day focused on subjects that the pilots would be interested in, namely how to get the most out of the tractors, and covered the following subjects.

  • A review of the tractor slow speed docking and undocking maneuvers and how to conduct them properly.  The importance for a pilot to consider the pivot point when using tugs on the ship to gain the maximum effect from the tug.  This session also included a discussion of the efficiency and clarity of the command language used by the pilots and commented on including the new “tractor commands”.

  • A review of the higher speed escort maneuvers that a tractor can perform in order to maximize its steering ability to the ship it is escorting.  This section illustrated why the pilot would want to use each maneuver and how the tug operator should operate the boat to perform it.  Even more important was a discussion on the emergency maneuver to use to extricate the boat if it were to get into trouble.

  • A thorough review of the results that were documented in the many live escort trails conducted in the US and Canada during the last seven years.  This section is always a real eye opener for the pilots as the general impression on escorting performance is quite exaggerated from the results actually obtained in live trials for a number of reasons.

  • As modern tractors can and regularly do tear chocks and bitts off of ships we presented a section on the strength and rating systems of a ship’s chocks and bitts.  By knowing how this equipment is rated and by using the proper techniques the pilot can greatly reduce the possibility that the tugs will damage the ship.

For this first day of escort training ATL was pleased to see that sixteen pilots from the three different ports they served volunteered their time to attend the training.  The interaction alone between the tug crews and the pilots as they wrestled with various issues clearly established the beginnings of a working bond between the two camps on how they were collectively going to get the most out of this unique equipment.

The second day’s classroom session covered several subjects focused on how to improve the boat’s overall safety and operational performance.  A lengthy discussion on the Company’s Job Safety Analysis program led to a lively discussion on safety as a whole.  Another interesting discussion took place on a crew’s responsibility for their own professional reputation if they do not attempt to improve the performance of their weakest operator in a port.  As ATL’s reputation is their reputation, they have a strong vested interest to take a more active part in the overall performance of all of the Company’s operators.  Finally the instructor also presented a review of current tractor tug designs [both Voith Schneider and Z-Drive Reverse tractors (ASDs)].  The crews were very pleasantly surprised to find that their design is considered by Captain Brooks to be a very advanced “third generation” Z-drive that will be an excellent performer as an escort.

Captain Brooks discusses strength issues with chocks and bitts.

Onboard Training

In order for the crews to really experience their boats while conducting these new escorting maneuvers, ATL took full advantage of actually having tractors in Saint John and used two of these boats to conduct all of their training drills.  One boat is assigned to play the role of the “ship” and its job is to oppose the actions of the “training” boat while attempting to maintain its original course and speed.  The second boat is then used as the “trainer” with as many of the students aboard as possible.  For safety purposes the lead boat (ship) is also charged with the responsibility for the safe navigation of the two boats and with communications with other vessel traffic in the area.

Prior to getting underway, in accordance with ATL’s safety policy, a Job Safety Analysis (JSA) session was conducted to ensure that all of the participants (including the deck crew and engineers) were aware of the risks involved with conducting this type of training, and how to properly address those risks.  When all questions had been asked and answered and everyone was comfortable with what was to be attempted, the two boats got underway.

Captain Glynn Johnston conducts an “Indirect Starboard.”

Prior to allowing any of the students to conduct a maneuver, the instructor would slowly demonstrate how to operate the boat so that the students could see what the maneuver looks like, and how to manipulate the controls to perform the maneuver.  While demonstrating how to conduct the maneuver the instructor would also carefully explain the risks involved and how to control the risk with a specific bail out maneuver which, in most cases, are unique to tractors.  After a short demonstration the boat was then turned over to one of the students who would repeatedly perform the maneuver while each time returning the boat back to the “inline slack-line” (all stop) position.  On this first day of maneuvering, the through the water speed for the “ship” was kept at 4-5 knots to ensure that everything happened slowly on the “training” tractor and to avoid any possibility of the boat getting away from a student.  For added safety, the instructor stayed very close to the operator, ready to step in at a moment’s notice if required.

Initially, the students concentrated on the easier tractor maneuvers such as the “indirect” and “powered indirect” maneuvers again returning to the neutral “inline slack-line” after each maneuver.  On the second day, after the crews have gained some confidence in their skills with the tractor, the training mixed in some of the more difficult maneuvers such as working the stem of the “ship” with the lead tug simply running at a safe course and speed while the “training” tug maneuvered around it.  We start by ensuring the crews can accurately conduct a round turn and first work approximately 100’ in front of the lead tug.  When the student demonstrates that he can control the tug, we allow the tugs to close in on the “ship” and finally allow the tractor land against the bow of the lead tug.  Another maneuver that is introduced during the second day is the “jackknife” maneuver where the tractor transitions from the indirect or powered indirect maneuver to the “direct pull” mode. 

Graduation Day as Captain Dan Albert safely conducts an “indirect’ to starboard on a VLCC headed for the Canaport SPM while another student critiques his performance.

With all of these maneuvers, the instructor needs to watch for mental overload as the students think their way through these early maneuvers.  After training many tugboatmen Towing Solutions has noted that it is far better to give the students many short stints at the controls during the day versus spending a longer time with the con.  This recognizes the fact that while maneuvering in front of their peers the student may be under a significant bit of extra stress, to say nothing of trying to think their way through the maneuver.  By allowing the student to step away from the con regularly their stress levels go down and they can now observe more critically the actions of the next student and keep their own learning process moving forward.  On the last day of training the students had advanced to a point where we were able to conduct live escorting drills with the 156,000 DWT tanker, SONAGOL KASSANJE under the command of Pilot Pat Quinn who had also attended the classroom and onboard training.  This real world look at the power of their boats to control a very large ship, even when the ship’s rudder was hard over, greatly impressed the crews and closed the class on a high note.

Of course a week long training session such as this is only the first step in advancing the knowledge and skills of a fully qualified Z-drive operator so that more value and safety can be added to the ship-assist process. This training has demonstrated to the crews how to do the maneuvers safely, now Atlantic Towing has to continue to move the training forward by ensuring that their crews regularly conduct training drills where the crews continue to practice these maneuvers in a controlled atmosphere. 

As a final service, Towing Solutions provided ATL with a report highlighting operational areas within ATL that could be improved as the Company moves forward.

As part of their continuous improvement efforts, ATL is in the process of training their own Tractor Training Captains who will ensure that new candidates are consistently trained and certified competent against a known standard.  Further, they intend to provide their deck officers with leadership training to ensure that the mariners that they charge with representing their Company have the skill sets to inspire and nurture their men as they move the Company forward.

By first taking a hard look at their company, Atlantic Towing set in motion a process that will not only significantly improve the competence of their tractor operators, but has also served as the catalyst for improved efficiency in the Company while at the same time placing them in a strong position to take on the competition and provide more value to their customers.

[1] Atlantic Towing owns and operates Z-Drive “Reverse Tractors”, but for the purpose of simplifying this article, the authors will refer to these boats as “tractors”.  We recognize that this will be considered as sacrilegious to some of our readers, to whom we offer our apologies in advance.

With more sophisticated tonnage in the fleet, ATL wanted to ensure it was also improving value to its customers. Therefore, ATL undertook an internal review that determined it was essential to have a robust training and development scheme in place.

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